I'm not actually a language learner myself, I'm actually an English language teacher, but I want to put together some information for my students regarding some of the difficulties they often face.

I've been looking into the usage of "ever" and have noticed something:

It seems "ever" can be used quite naturally in close-ended questions (Have you ever...; do you ever...; did you ever...) and yet not in open-ended ones (What cities have you ever lived in? What kind of food have you ever eaten?).

Admittedly I have been living abroad for over a decade so maybe my radar has gone off, but would you agree that it doesn't sound as natural to use "ever" in open-ended questions? If so, is there any way to account for this?

Any and all replies are appreciated, thank you!

  • Where did you ever get that idea? Not many hits admittedly, but there are a few, I think the more correct version would be: Wherever did you get that idea? However, would a native speaker stop in their tracks and say the former was odd sounding? Many more hits on Google Books for the following: "When have you ever..."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 18:47
  • It's possible that your radar does want recalibrating, because it's not hard to find cases where "ever" can legitimately and without frightening the horses be used in open-end questions. It can't be done in all cases, but it can in some, Mari-Lou's example being, er, exemplary.
    – MMacD
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 22:33
  • Ever is a Negative Polarity Item. That means it's ungrammatical outside a negative environment (*He has ever been there); and questions are negative environments, because they allow the possibility of negation. There's a voluminous literature on this, available on that last link. Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 4:03
  • I should have clarified: I mean that it seems to serve a very different function in open-ended questions than it does in close ended ones. In other words, it can be used in close ended ones without really affecting the way in which the speaker intends to convey the message, but when used in open ended ones, it betrays a particular attitude the speaker holds.
    – user42634
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 3:53

4 Answers 4


It might useful to tell your students to think about the pair of words 'ever' and 'never' together, and in terms of their meaning/semantics:

  • ever means 'at least once'
  • never means 'no times'

'Never' can be the answer (even a one word answer: 'Never', meaning: not ever) to your close-ended questions above which use 'ever'.

So I agree with your assessment above and that 'ever' doesn't work in a sentence where the answer is a list of things. Maybe instead of focusing on close- vs open-ended, you could give them a trick and say 'ever' shouldn't be used in any question where you wouldn't be able to somehow reword the question to say something like 'Have you at least once...?'.

  • Thanks, but what I'm trying to get at is whether or not there is a way to account for this phenomenon, rather than trying to come up with a way to get my students to use the terms properly.
    – user42634
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 10:36

I do accept that 'ever' seems logical to be used In close - ended questions. But there could be very few rare exceptions.

Dictionary.com defines 'ever' in many ways, but the ones that fits our subject of question is as follows:

1.at any time:

Have you ever seen anything like it?

2.in any possible case; by any chance; at all(often used to intensify or emphasize a phrase or an emotional reaction as surprise or impatience):

How did you ever manage to do it? If the band ever plays again, we will dance.

The first example is obviously a close ended question.

Now consider the first example given for the second definition. It is a question. how did you ever manage to do that?

It is a kind of open ended question, to which, the person answers can answer so many things or even step by step. This seems to be a rare case where in 'ever' is used in a question other than close ended.


  • Certainly, it does have a particular usage with open-ended questions in some contexts, but consider this context: there are two people who have just met, and one asks the other:
    – user42634
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 10:37
  • Sorry, accidentally pushed the "enter button" One asks the other: "So, what countries have you ever lived in?"
    – user42634
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 10:37
  • That sentence seems ungrammatical. U can mention a place and ask, "have you ever been/lived there" . what and ever don't suit in your example.
    – Vanpram P
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 12:37

Since ever means at any time, it cannot pair semantically with a question whose time covers "all times" or a span of time.

For example:

What countries have you visited in your life?

wants a list of countries that you have visited over the course of your life.

That question cannot be asked so

What countries have you ever visited?

because that would be equivalent to asking

What countries have you visited at any time?

and at any given time, you can be visiting only one country, since at refers to a point in time, not to a duration or span.

P.S. Your alleged exception, How did you ever manage to do it?, is not an exception at all. It refers to an accomplishment, that which has been accomplished, and accomplishment takes place at a point in time. It is not yet accomplished, and then it is accomplished.

  • I'm not sure this is the case.
    – user42634
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 3:55
  • Take the question "Have you ever lived...?"
    – user42634
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 3:55
  • You need to communicate more clearly, @user42634. What is the antecedent of "this" in your first comment? How specifically does your second example not have the meaning 'at any time'? It is no different than "Have you ever crossed the Golden Gate bridge?"
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 11:26

Ever means "at least once." It doesn't mean "at any time" in the sense that you can substitute any valid time expression and have a true statement.

What cities have you ever lived in? = What cities have you at least once lived in?

Since it's possible there could be multiple cities that you've lived in at least once, I'm unclear why the listener couldn't respond with a list of such cities.

However, if there are many cities the listener can't really answer you efficiently, so this is best used if you know the listener has only lived in a couple cities. If you have no knowledge about the number of possible cities whatsoever, best to avoid saying this unless an answer like "Oh, a whole lot. I couldn't name them all off." will work for you.

Now, if you want to limit the time range, since will help you:

What cities have you ever lived in since 2014 = What cities have you at least once lived in since 2014.

Since is crucial, you can't just throw the time expression in there or use another preposition without it sounding weird.

In 2014 what cities have you ever lived in (bad).

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